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At the time when Sontag wrote her essay, people kept being continuously shown photos of atrocities, and this is true now more than ever before. What she said about the bars for a photo to shock us keep on increasing seems more and more true. Have people begun to lose more of their human kindness for others, or is it just the mass photographs that are continuously being shown to people, which are doing more harm than good. Must photographs continuously increase their shock value to have any effect on us and get people to react? We need more novel events, some extraordinary occurrences, for people to pay attention and react. People are very busy in their ordinary lives, and for something to make them involved, any photographs need to be increasingly novel for them to pay attention.
Media and their increasing coverage
Media is showing us photos of terrible atrocities going on all over the globe; we can watch the news live or very close to when the event has happened. We have access to these news items all night and day right in our living room. Something happening on the other side of the world is transmitted to us quickly these days. On the newspapers we might see on the front page photos trying to shock us, to compete with other newspapers into buying their particular paper. The increasing shock value these photos must have to impact us might render us more indifferent. So much cruelty is going on; what differences can just one man be able to do one might think. People are very busy with their own personal lives and today everyone seems to have lack of time. They might say; “That is terrible”, then forget it and move on to their daily chores.
The power of the photograph
Photographs are a way for people to capture our precious moments on a kind of piece of paper, which we can look at when we feel the need for it. Opposite of books we can interpret the photos according to our own understanding, and we can visually see the objects; as some people say; “Seeing is believing” We see it ourselves, and it becomes more personal. Furthermore the emotions we have when looking at a photograph are much more than all words can describe. Photos have a distinctive way of making the objects come to life, and public opinions can be drastically changed and manipulated by the use of photographs. For example, the photo of Saddam Hussein being toppled has frequently been shown by the allies. The photo was used “as a public relation strategy” and “was criticized by some journalist as a staged photo opportunity” (Fahmy, 2007, p.144). The photos were also shot at close range so to let it seem like it was a big crowd of celebrating Iraqis, while on internet on a larger picture we can see “there are a sparse crowd of a round 200 people” (Fahmy, 2007, p.145). According to Fahmy, 2007, p.149, negative pictures like causalities were avoided. This had various implications to the viewers.
According to a study by Iyer and Oldmeadow photographs increased fear reactions (2006, p.635). To see how powerful photographs may be we, can look at the photos taken of the My Lai Massacre by American soldiers in Vietnam. Those photographs were the main reason for the public outrage, and without those “the terrible massacre would have made little public impact” Cookman, 2007, p.154). These two examples clearly brings to light the power photos have in conveying messages.
Photographs as evidence, and stored memories
Photographs functions very well as evidence, and memories of events that have already happened. Photos are valuable as evidence for special events, and memories of tragedies as well as treasured moments in our lives. The visual image the photo can give us strikes us immediately and fills each of us with different emotions according to the meaning each of us puts in it and the background each of us has. As evidence, if not manipulated, a photo shows the object photographed and makes much better evidence of an event, which has happened or has been experienced rather than tales themselves. The photo also makes the issue photographed more personal and emotionally close. Natchez in Mississippi, a center for the former slave trade, uses photographs as evidence for the former slave trade and to document the years from 1850 to 1930. According to Stauffer, 2008, p.248 the walls are filled with thousands of photographs
Bridget R. Cooks uses photographs of lynching to teach her students. They have to analyze the photographs and describe all sorts of things they see (2007, p.137). Photographs can be used in many different special ways, and here students really have to use their imagination and learn more deeply the history of lynching
As mentioned previously the photographs of the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam not only caused public outrage, but function as well as evidence of what happened and can therefore, not so easily be dismissed for being untrue. It was the publication in Life and Time magazine in 1969 that caused “the national and international attention” (Cookman, 2007, p.154). As suggested by Cookman, 2007, p.155 “Combined with verbal and statistical accounts, however, they enrich our historical understanding. We can learn from the pictures and they have the potential of making us aware of significant teaching to remember about our duty as citizens, to remember the atrocities, and not forget them. The photographs fueled antiwar sentiment among some people, while denied by others. Over time those photographs become as iconic as the photo of the Vietnamese girl burned by napalm. As brought forth by Cookman, 2007, p.159 the photographed has also been compared to those that were taken at Abu Ghrabi prison, in Iraq, which caused similar criticism against the Iraq war
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Susan Sontag with her; “Remembering is an ethical act” can be used for this example. This is because photography is a form of memorialization that makes those who will read and view to be witnesses. According to Cookman, 2007, p.160-161 looking away from these photographs is to deny one of the most powerful ways to remember a massacre. The quote; “Remembering their suffering is a way to honoring them” is a very thoughtful statement.
Views of different photographers
Billy E. Barnes, in his photograph of the reaction to the people right after Martin Luther King was assassinated according to him is the most acclaimed pictures he ever shot. They later responded with a peaceful and respectful march rather than burning down houses as some other people suggested (Gritter, p. 88-89). The tragedy of his death had a big impact on many people, and photographs can many times capture the emotion of the moment. As he also says, “A picture is worth more than a thousand words” (Gritter, 2003, p.84). While a lot of horrific photos are published, one has also the opposite side, where censured photos are published. For example, in 1991 during the first Gulf War at least one journalist in Baghdad was imprisoned for reporting too sympathetically.
According to Gilbertson & Stallabrass, 2009, p.350 there is also a rule which states that “you can’t take any photograph of anyone who’s been killed or wounded” without some special written permission. This is mainly based on issues of ethics and morals.
Being present at the place or on the site of atrocities
Sontag was only twelve when she saw photos of some concentration camps, and according to her that changed her life forever (2008, p.559). It is something else being at the place the atrocity has taken place, especially being there when it happens. What good can it do for young children to see such things; is it really healthy for them? If children are used to a calm environment, then suddenly thrown into such a place, one can never forget it. In Norway for example, we have the white buses that take us to the concentration camps, where we use around a week visiting different camps. Having a survivor as a guide make it very more real, and watching Schindler’s list inside Aushwich for children that are around her age has a huge impact. Walking in the camp and seeing Nazis walking in uniform outside just confirms that there is still a real problem. It is worth remembering it and make sure that something like this never happens again. We had seen photos before, but being there was totally different, and anything after that did not shock us so much anymore. One person we asked for direction in the streets of Prague even yelled Jew in an aggressive manner when we asked for direction. To witness such events have a tremendous impact on especially children; one can never say that too much, and there is no wonder why Sontag was so affected.
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Repeatedly showing the horrific pictures
Being repeatedly exposed to such photos makes them less real, as one get more familiar with them. For example, the girl in the Vietnam War that was covered in Napalm shocked people tremendously, but showing it repeatedly unfortunately, takes some of the shock value away (2008, p.560). Photographers may have the best intentions in mind, but making such photos so familiar to us may have the opposite effect. With increased exposure, we might be less shocked. The time since any atrocities has happened, perhaps with exception of the concentration camps might fade with time. One needs to remember, but still keep it shocking, so to have people afraid that it might happen again.
It seems indeed, that for something to shock us we need an increasing amount of shock factor (2008, p.559). The tragedy of September 11 was a tragedy of tremendous dimensions, and something one had not experienced before. Airplanes and the terrible damage that was done in one of the greatest cities in the world was truly a tragedy of great dimensions. This really shocked people all over the world, at least the reasonable people. It seems the cruelty of humankind has no limits. As Sontag writes for something to shock us, it has to be novel. We have other tragedies, but those are more common and remote, like in Africa with Darfur, but it has become so familiarized. To do anything, to take action, it seems like we need a sudden shock and quick action when people still are ready for action.